THE VERY SOUND OF IT WAS INTOXICATING: six days of soul cleansing at a maharajah's palace high in the Himalayas, overlooking the Ganges River and Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. But for what was supposed to be a relaxing spa trip, my visit to India's new Mandarin Oriental Ananda didn't get off to an easy start.
I couldn't snag a seat on the 40-minute flight from Delhi to Dehra Dun, Ananda's closest airport. (No matter: I hear it's usually canceled.) So I did what any rational traveler would have done—hire a car and driver for the five-hour trip. No sweat, I thought: a chance to see the Indian countryside!
Four hours later we were only halfway there, and I was in a state of misery that no amount of massaging could placate. The sun was beating through the car windows. Cows, pigs, and manic motorcyclists crowded the dusty, narrow, two-lane road. Every 30 seconds, in an attempt to pass slower cars, my Indy 500 driver leaned on the horn and swerved into oncoming traffic.
It took four more harrowing hours to reach Rishikesh. Instead of the idyllic New Age haven I'd expected, there were muddy potholed roads, dilapidated auto-parts shops—and not a yogi in sight. I was tempted to turn around, but soon we were on the tree-shrouded road that zigzags up a mountain to Ananda. The air grew crisp and cool. It became serenely quiet, except for the sounds of crickets and monkeys. Far above, in the evening sky, I could see the lights of the resort. Salvation was within reach.
THE WORD ANANDA IS SANSKRIT FOR "HAPPINESS AND SELF-CONTENTMENT." In the planning stages, the retreat was called Nirvana, which would have been just as fitting. For centuries, people have traveled to Rishikesh to seek enlightenment—the Beatles visited one of its many ashrams in the 1960's. But now, in place of an ascetic dirt-floored hut, enlightenment can be attained in a sumptuous setting managed by one of the top hotel groups.
Ananda quietly opened for a test run last April, with just a few rooms available to guinea-pig guests during India's monsoon season. I decided to take my trip in October, after the rains had subsided and all rooms had opened. That way I could visit anonymously and see if the much-touted spa was worthy of its advance press.
Since women rarely travel alone in India, I invited my 27-year-old brother, Tom, who has accompanied me to some of the world's finest resorts. While he'd never had a massage or a facial in his life, he knew all about luxury and was up to the challenge.
The Maharajah of Tehri Garhwal leased 100 acres of his land to Ananda, but kept most of the estate's turn-of-the-century Moorish-style palace for himself. (He's seldom seen, but rumor has it that he sometimes dines at the hotel.) The annex adjoining the palace now houses an Art Deco lobby, a library with rare books from the maharajah's personal collection, a billiards room whose centerpiece is the 150-year-old hand-carved table, and a regal 2,400-square-foot suite on the second floor.
The rest of Ananda's rooms are in a new building down a small hill. At first glance, the six-story marble-and-beech monolith looks like a Florida condo development with Asian flair. I'd seen pictures of the rooms on Ananda's Web site and in its brochure, but I was still expecting something more authentic. After settling in, however, I found myself focusing less on my quarters and more on the surrounding hills covered with pine and sal trees—and on myself. And I soon appreciated my room's modernity, after spending a tiring day exploring Rishikesh. Nothing could be more refreshing, I decided, than soaking in a deep tub by a picture window, watching the Ganges snake through the valley.
Unlike most spas, Ananda doesn't monitor every physical move and calorie. "We call it the 'soft approach,' not regimented or disciplined," says manager Jayanth Rangan. Arriving guests are invited to meet with the spa director and the Ayurvedic doctor to plan a menu of treatments and exercise. (If someone would rather breeze in for a few days, have an aromatherapy massage, lounge by the pool, and indulge in endless helpings of tandoori chicken and Kingfisher beer, that person would be a lot like my brother—and would be welcomed, too.)
But the elements of rejuvenation are here. In place of a jarring wake-up call is a gentle knock on your door, along with a pot of detoxifying tea with lemon, ginger, and honey. Every evening, a note is delivered with details about the next day's complimentary yoga, aerobics, and meditation sessions. Spa treatments are startlingly cheap: a honey-and-rose facial is just $32; a half-hour of reflexology, only $19.
I WISH I'D DRESSED UP—OR AT LEAST WORN SOMETHING MORE SLIMMING—for my appointment with Suraj Dubey, the Ayurvedic doctor. But not thinking, I took a dip in the pool beforehand, then threw on a man's shirt and a sarong.
First I met with the spa director, Dr. Sanjay Khanzode, who trained in London and helped set up the spa at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur. I told him I wanted to do it all—a decadent mix of massages, hydrotherapy, facials and body wraps. But Dr. Khanzode limited me to three sessions a day. "More than that and your body burns out," he warned.
I already knew a bit about Ayurvedic medicine, an ancient Hindu system of holistic health care, so I was eager to meet with Dr. Dubey to learn which doshas, or constitutions, ruled my body. A person can have any combination of kapha (water and earth), pitta (fire), and vata (air), but ideally all three are in balance. If they're uneven, Ayurveda uses food, yoga, and lifestyle changes to improve mental and physical well-being.
Dr. Dubey took me into his dimly lit office and started running down a list of questions: Do you sleep through the night?Are you generally sweaty?Do you have a high sex drive?Then came the zinger: Do you consider yourself thin, moderate, or stout?Easy answer: moderate. But the doctor took one look at me in my blousy, unflattering outfit and proclaimed: "Stout."
After an in-the-buff full-body exam (Ayurveda is serious stuff), Dr. Dubey diagnosed me as kapha-pitta, which means I'm strong but have a tendency to be sluggish. He prescribed three days of treatments. Day one sounded delicious: First, I'd have a synchronized abhyanga massage, in which two therapists would rub specially mixed, medicated oils over my entire body to balance my doshas. Then I'd undergo thakradhara—warm buttermilk gently poured onto my forehead for 45 minutes—to relieve stress. Day two sounded even better: udwarthanam, a dry herbal massage meant to produce an overall slimming effect, paired with another round of thakradhara. (Having a weight-loss treatment followed by a dose of buttermilk seemed like ordering a diet Coke with a Big Mac, but maybe that's just me.)
The third day's treatment, kashaya vasthy, wasn't as easy to stomach. It involved an enema, which is very popular with Indian guests. Dr. Dubey explained this as a detoxifying procedure, ideal for people with a kapha-pitta constitution. I'm a big believer in spas and holistic medicine, but this was a bit too radical for my Western ways. I took a rain check.
STILL SUFFERING FROM JET LAG, Tom and I barely roused ourselves for yoga at 9:15 a.m. in the Music Pavilion, a dramatic open-air structure supported by white columns and surrounded by reflecting pools. Beneath its grand ceiling, painted with images of lotus petals, we were joined by just one guest, even though 69 of Ananda's 75 rooms were filled. Rishi, the instructor, quizzed us on our knowledge, then adjusted the session accordingly. (I know a fair amount about yoga; Tom and the other woman didn't.)
Unlike some aerobic versions I've encountered in the States, yoga in India is slow, measured, and all about holding your asanas, or postures, in order to achieve unparalleled relaxation. We started with pranayama breathing techniques before doing the vrikshasana, or tree pose, standing on one leg. Rishi had us try the pose with our eyes open and closed to demonstrate the concentration it takes to balance without sight, using the exercise to illustrate the connection between our minds and bodies.
We practiced a few other asanas, learning the theories behind each, then meditated in the shavasana, or dead man's pose. I became fixated on the scent of the wild ginger oil that Rishi was burning, and through the haze of my meditative state made a note to buy some at the gift shop. Tom soldiered through the session but never returned. He said his idea of unparalleled relaxation involved a bed, not balancing on a single leg.
More-experienced yoga practitioners, who might be frustrated with the slow pace of group classes, can take one-on-one sessions (only $21 for an hour). I didn't see the need to book individual lessons because I was the only student at two of my six early-morning classes. (I attribute this to an Andersen Consulting conference being held at the resort. The businessmen spent their days crunching numbers in meeting rooms and showed no apparent interest in spiritual cleansing.)
After the harrowing trip to reach Ananda, I was reluctant to leave its luxurious confines. But an integral part of visiting India is, of course, seeing India. So before dawn one morning, we took a jeep to Kunjapuri, a mountaintop temple, where we watched the sun rise over the snowcapped Himalayas.
Another day we went white-water rafting on the Ganges, which in this region has challenging rapids. I was concerned about safety and sanitation, since Hindus scatter the ashes of their dead in the Ganges. But the guide assuaged my fears, saying, "The Ganges is the mother river, and a mother never hurts its children." His words were still ringing in my ears as we approached a trio of bumps called the Three Blind Mice, where a wave pitched me across our rubber raft.
The rafting trip ended near Lakshman Jhula, a narrow suspension bridge that crosses the Ganges at the holiest section of Rishikesh. This hippie-chic outpost wasn't the Rishikesh I'd seen when we arrived. We wandered into ashrams and lingered at open-air shops selling funky mirrored bangles and $20 pashmina shawls. At sunset, we headed to Rishikesh's clock tower, on the banks of the Ganges, where the Ganga Aarti ceremony is held nightly to worship the river. A choir of young boys in yellow robes chanted at the river's edge while elderly priests floated flickering candles on the water. These were pleasant diversions, but they weren't enough to distract us from the spa experience.
ONE AFTERNOON, WHILE I WAS TAKING A KILLER ABS-AND-BUTT SESSION AT THE GYM, Tom was chatting with guests by the pool. A man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who had come for a couple of days with his spa-junkie girlfriend, complained that they found Ananda's service irritatingly overattentive.
Tom and I couldn't have disagreed more. I enjoyed it when employees greeted me by name, opened every door, and answered each request with "As you wish." One evening, when we were late for dinner, the restaurant even phoned to ask whether we wanted our meals sent to our room.
Unlike many hotels of this caliber, Ananda hires people for their personalities and willingness to serve, rather than their experience. According to manager Rangan, it's easier to teach new habits than to dispel bad ones learned at hotel schools or other resorts. But this practice brings problems of its own.
The spa, in particular, was confronted with a catch-22: Dr. Khanzode wanted to employ Indians. But since massage isn't commonly practiced in the country, there were no Indian therapists available.
Anjona Musthafi, the masseuse who gave me a sublime papaya body polish one evening, explained that Indian mothers massage their babies until they're a year old—then the kneading stops. "Massage doesn't have a good image in India," she said. "For adults, it has sexual connotations."
To train his staff, Dr. Khanzode flew in specialists from around the world, including Minneapolis-based Aveda, which itself adopted its beauty-treatment theories from Ayurvedic medicine. (Ananda offers several Aveda regimens.) The spa's therapists studied massage and beauty techniques for a year before the opening, and all that training has paid off.
The Himalayan honey-and-rose facial left me with an ethereal glow. My brother felt transported during a Thai massage administered by a former employee of the Oriental Bangkok (she's the only non-Indian therapist on staff). Eastern philosophies of chakras and aura-cleansing are incorporated into all treatments. It's not every day that a masseuse administers energy rebalancing during a Swedish massage or a pedicurist describes his favorite Hindu goddess as he scrapes the calluses off your feet. Even the tea served in the relaxation rooms is specially formulated to help bring your doshas in order.
But not everything is perfect. Tom, who loves cycling, was disappointed to discover that the mountain bikes promised in Ananda's literature hadn't arrived. And the regular menu is loaded with Indian dishes that are too spicy for timid palates.
To be fair, all vegetables are organically grown on a nearby farm, and there are two spa choices—vegetarian or non-vegetarian—at every meal. These add up to a mere 1,200 to 1,400 calories a day and are a pleasant fusion of Asian, Indian, and Western flavors. One day's vegetarian spa lunch paired Thai curried eggplant soup and spaghetti with tandoori-roasted vegetables. But a couple of healthful alternatives hardly qualify as a stimulating spa menu.
Guests can also follow a third option: an Ayurvedic plan tailored to their doshas. Dr. Dubey offered to create one for me, and it seemed like a good idea until I was served the first night's dinner—a cup of basmati rice, a bowl of vegetable broth, and a small helping of spicy yogurt. Perhaps Dr. Dubey was trying to help me in the "stout" department, but I decided to cheat for the rest of my stay by sampling the high-calorie (and delicious) Indian fare. In true Ananda fashion, nobody said a word.
I didn't have an easy time booking at the Mandarin Oriental Ananda (Tehri Garhwal, Uttar Pradesh; 91-1378/27500, fax 91-1378/27550; www.anandaspa.com; doubles from $300; breakfast and treatments are extra). E-mails and faxes to Ananda went unanswered. When I called Mandarin Oriental Hotels (800/526-6566), I was assured that the hotel would be connected to its reservations network by October. However, as of press time in November, Ananda still couldn't be booked through Mandarin's toll-free number.
Our Personal Guest (212/319-1354, fax 212/319-4526; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), India's travel specialist to the rich and famous, came to my rescue. Expect to spend upwards of $1,000 a day on hotel, food, transfers, and guides. Other travel planners include Lisa Lindblad Travel Design (212/876-2554, fax 212/722-2797; email@example.com) and Shagun Mohan (91-11/684-1598, fax 91-11/619-5553; firstname.lastname@example.org).